New crop popping up in Alta. shows potential

Lethbridge test plots show the region’s low humidity and bountiful sunshine make it suitable for growing thebaine poppies

Flowers may bloom metaphorically as well as physically in 2017 if Lethbridge-based API Labs is successful in its bid to grow poppies for the pharmaceutical market.

The company has been working for nine years to obtain the necessary federal approvals to grow thebaine poppies, establish a seed cleaning plant and build an alkaloid processing plant to produce ingredients for pain medications.

API managing director Glen Metzler says the company might be able to contract poppy acres with growers in 2017 for a 2018 crop.

Test plots indicate poppies thrive in the southern Alberta climate because of low humidity, long hours of sunlight and cool nights during the growing season.

API has been testing the crop since 2013 in small plots and larger-scale 20-acre plots.

“We had some good results from it,” said Metzler.

“We had some issues with the heat because the seeding was so late. We didn’t receive our licence until the first of June so we couldn’t seed any earlier.”

The primary hurdles for API involve security and managing worries about theft of the poppies in the field or theft of the seed pods and upper stalks from which the pharmaceutical ingredients are derived.

Thebaine, the ingredient derived from the poppies, is a controlled substance under federal rules.

However, theft — or diversion, as Metzler terms it — is not a problem in England, Australia and other countries where poppies are grown for the same purpose.

Poppies are among the most profitable crops grown in Australia, and Metzler said that country is now expanding its growing area to three additional states to meet demand for the crop and interest from farmers.

“We’ve been, all along, saying Canada should be a growing area,” said Metzler.

“We’re letting the others take away the market opportunity that Canada has. We’re relying completely on imported material. So you have to ask yourself, health care costs, as well as security of supply? We don’t have those opportunities. Why are we not creating these kind of jobs for our kids?”

Farmer returns from the crop are expected to be as good or better than what is received for canola, said Metzler. Half of API’s 170 in-vestors are farmers, and its board of directors has experience in agriculture and marketing as well as law enforcement.

The manufacturing plant, should it be built, could employ up to 300 people.

Metzler said he is hopeful that the groundwork laid with the former Conservative government will hold up under the new Liberal regime. Approvals are needed from Health Canada for the project to proceed as API envisions.

Canadians are prescribed $500 to $600 million worth of poppy-derived drugs a year. Such drugs comprise 10 percent of all prescriptions issued in Canada.

Metzler also has his eye on the U.S. market for thebaine-derived drugs, which is estimated at $5 billion.

Contact barb.glen@producer.com

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